There’s a lot to be said for Netflix’s algorithm and its many, many faults – especially when it comes to advertising their own shows. While the streaming giant’s original movie offerings have left something to be desired, their TV shows often provide pleasant surprises. This is to say that I was a bit wary when a new animated series that got no publicity whatsoever popped at the top of my recommendations queue. What I found was The Hollow, one of the most easily bingeable shows in a while that helped fill the void left by Gravity Falls.
The Hollow can best be described as The Maze Runner meets a Telltale game meets an action-packed Gravity Falls. Three teenagers wake up trapped in a windowless cell with no past memories, not how they got here. As they start learning about the gravity of their situation, they also learn their names from written notes they find in their pockets – oh, and the show’s other hook is that each of the teens has special abilities. Adam is the natural born leader that is the first to discover he has extraordinary strength and reflexes; Kai is the shy and underconfident kid who doubts every single decision; and Mira is really good at puzzles and coming up with solutions to every new problem.
From the very start, you feel that The Hollow is on the right hands. Created by the trio of animation veteran responsible for Nerds vs Monsters, writer Vito Viscomi and directors Josh Mepham and Greg Sullivan (Kid vs Cat) waste no time with explanations or exposition. We know as much as the teens know and discover things at the same time as they do. The story moves at a quick enough pace that by the time the characters start figuring out how to work together to escape their prison, you’ll likely already become attached to them – and from there on it’s an action-packed series of puzzles and battles with all sorts of weird creatures.
The issue with series or movies that centre on a big mystery is how it can distract from an actual story. While J.J. Abrams helped create Lost and breathe new life to the Star Wars saga, arguably his greatest contributions to pop culture is the concept of the “mystery box”, a metaphor for his approach to storytelling where mystery drives the story, instead of anything else.
This style of storytelling dominated the TV landscape after Lost came out in 2004 – shows that placed a mystery at the centre of their story with no plans for an answer. Think of how many TV shows came out after flight Oceanic 815 crashed on the island where the plot was “This group of people go about their day unaware that a mysterious event is about to change their lives”. The main problem with this type of show is that 9 out of 10 times they have no plan of solving the central mystery in the first season, and they get canceled with no satisfying conclusion. Flash Forward, Alcatraz, The Event, Revolution all had catastrophic events and mysteries at the core of the story and only the latter got more than 1 season.
This is not the case with The Hollow, as it actually provides a satisfying answer to each of its central questions that in no way cheapens the journey there – and the questions raised in the first episode don’t distract from character development. Why are the teens there, why don’t they remember anything, why are there minotaurs, why is Adam super strong? All of those get answered. Yet the journey is what matters, as they say, and this journey is a hell of a good time. Taking a page out of Gravity Falls book, the show introduces genre mashup and a big mythology from the get-go, with creatures that are there to misdirect the audience from the true secrets of its universe, while keeping it kid-friendly. There is a creature that might as well be named xenomorph, hellhounds, witches and even the Grim Reaper, but there is still time for fart jokes and a sense of childish wonder and adventure that the Disney XD show did so well.
Just like the best animated series of recent years, like Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra, Over the Garden Wall and Gravity Falls, so too does The Hollow introduce a world that could easily be part of an R-rated film franchise, but we see it through the eyes of young kids who don’t know the extend of the danger they are in. While the stakes can be Earth-shattering, the creators of the show employ a generally light tone that deflates the situation with jokes or childish wonder – not like we don’t see this in big blockbusters like every other Marvel movie – while slowly increasing the stakes and introducing weirder characters and darker plotlines (Gravity Falls ended with a literal apocalypse of weirdness). Even the art style feels simplified, sort of like a point and click game. Most of the problems our trio of heroes encounter could be solved by an imaginary mouse pointing at an item or way out, which makes the show vivid and the experience immersive.
While the tone is a bit childish, the characters are far from it. It is especially exciting to see that Mira, who is drawn to be Asian-American, seems to be the smarter of the group and doesn’t need or want help from either of the boys. Between this Trollhunters (also a Netflix show, with a final season released recently) it seems that the strong female characters audiences are demanding are not in the big screen blockbusters, but in our television and tablet screens. That the show skips an episodic format in favour or a serialized structure also helps in deepening the characters and making us get to know them better, as well as making the show a better binge-watching experience. Each episode devotes its last few minutes to set up the next episode, so you will be really hard pressed to keep going until you reach the final episode.
The use of pop-culture references also helps attract older viewers through the never-ending power of nostalgia. As Adam, Mira and Kai run into more and more monsters and dangerous situations, we see familiar tropes and genres. Once they go up to a marooned spaceship with no crewmember to be found, it is easy to draw parallels to Alien, and that’s even before a tall creature with a large tube-like head shows up. Since each episode deals with a different area of the world of The Hollow, they all are part of different genres. One episode is pure space horror, the next is an apocalyptic wasteland, before we go to a fantasy land with castles or even a Night of the Living Dead inspired zombie invasion. Just like Guillermo del Toro’s Trollhunters, the use of familiar genre tropes is used as nostalgia to lure viewers with something familiar, before placing new characters and storylines within those known frames.
Going back to the number of Lost-wannabes that came out after 2010, The Hollow’s greatest achievement is setting up a mystery that actually pays off without any cliffhangers. Every hint dropped along the way that may lead to many figuring things out way in advance, but it is still a highly satisfying ending that makes sense without the need of more seasons. That and the promise of teenagers with cool powers facing off an unknown world full of weird creatures with a great sense of humour should fill the adventure void left by Gravity Falls.
Rafael Motamayor (@GeekWithAnAfro) is a recovering-cinephile and freelance writer from Venezuela currently based in Norway. He has written for Flickering Myth, Birth.Movies.Death, and SYFY.